No stopping the syrup

CHARDON, Ohio – Gary McDonald spent the better part of his childhood in the sugarbush, helping his family make syrup in Geauga County. But a storm in 1969, on the Fourth of July, leveled his family’s forest and put syrup making to rest for two decades.

The morning after the storm, a young McDonald looked at what was left of the syrup-making operation and didn’t recognize a thing. The wind had ripped the trees from the ground, roots and all, and threw them down like they were nothing but matchsticks. The sugarhouse was crushed.

At the time, many area farms made syrup. But few were as ravaged by the 1969 storm as the McDonalds. Sitting on one of the highest spots in the county, the McDonald farm in Chardon took the brunt of the wind’s attack.

A couple hours of hard rain and violent gusts ended the McDonalds’ sugar-making business – until the hogs came along.

A switch. Soon after that storm in 1969, Gary married his wife, Mary.

When a farm adjacent to his family’s farm came up for rent, and Gary and Mary jumped at the chance to farm full time. The couple and their two new babies moved to Gray Horse Farm and filled the basement of the dairy barn with feeder hogs.

They spent 10 years raising pigs, and growing and selling hay.

But the hogs got to be too much. The McDonalds weren’t making much money off them and were frustrated. Time for a switch, they thought.

It’d been 20 years since “The Storm” and some of the younger trees in a nearby woodlot had matured and were ready to tap.

So, Gary and Mary got rid of the pigs and used the money to invest in sugaring equipment.

Getting started, again. A Canadian syrup expert sold the McDonalds on tubing, a novelty at the time. By the spring of 1989, thin blue tubes covered the woods, snaking from tree to tree.

The next year, the McDonalds and an Amish crew built a cabin for syrup making far from the road, tucked in an open field surrounded by woods.

In the spring of 1990, Gary and Mary and their four children boiled syrup for the first time by lantern-light in their new sugarhouse.

Gary was happy to be back to his roots.

Syrup days. Things haven’t changed much in the last decade.

The McDonalds have 1,100 taps on the original tubing and 300 bucket taps.

With the help of Mary, their son Pete, and friend Bill Hummel, Gary spends much of March making syrup, heaving massive quantities of chopped wood to feed the fire, broiling steaks in the red-hot coals, napping on tattered furniture and enjoying the company of whoever stops to help.

And someone is always dropping by to offer a hand.

It’s because they like the cozy atmosphere of being out in the woods doing something so down to earth, Mary said. And she agrees.

Modesty. Gary’s obviously proud, as his family and friends sip on spoonfuls of syrup and say it’s delicious. And he knows the sugar and cream candies he makes fill their mouths with a satisfaction not found in grocery store candy aisles.

But he’s modest.

As long as people pay attention to what they’re making, the syrup all tastes pretty good, he said.

“Mine is nothing special,” he said, as his son is on his third spoonful.

The McDonalds don’t even enter their syrup in the county’s annual festival.

No need for contests. They mostly sell their syrup by word of mouth, and their customers already know it’s good, they said.

Seasons take shape. The start of syrup-making season signals the start of another busy year for the family.

Gary and Mary, and the teens they hire each summer, make, sell and deliver about 30,000 bales of hay a season. The McDonalds also raise beef at the farm Gary’s grandparents Paul and Della Varney started a lifetime ago.

And each fall they set up a roadside stand and sell their sweet corn and pumpkins.

But syrup is the family’s true passion. Gary, who has a degree in wildlife management, loves strapping on snowshoes, traipsing through the quiet forest and checking the taps.

There are bad years, when the weather is too warm and the sap doesn’t flow. In fact, only one of the last three years has been decent, Gary said.

But that doesn’t stop him.

Sure, the extra money is welcome. But they say it’s more about the camaraderie of a Saturday afternoon spent in a steamy sugarhouse with friends and family. It’s the excitement leading up to the first day of boiling.

It’s doing something the family’s done for generations in these same woods.

(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at khebert@farmanddairy.com.)

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